New Study Finds People Who Meditate Deal With Stress More Quickly
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
We’re well aware that meditation can help you relax, get centered, and feel less stressed out over time when done regularly. Now a new study published in the Psychoneuroendocrinology shows exactly why: People who meditate regularly actually have a faster physiological recovery from stress, primarily thanks to one specific psychological strategy that meditation makes them very good at.
Researchers examined 29 long-term meditation practitioners (specifically, people who've been meditating regularly for at least three hours a week for at least the last three years) and 26 people who don’t meditate. The researchers gave both groups a test that induces stress and examined the way they responded psychologically and physiologically. The findings showed the meditators actually had a faster cortisol recovery after a stressful incident, meaning that their levels of cortisol (the hormone that floods your body when you’re stressed out or feeling threatened in any way) returned back down to normal more quickly than the cortisol levels of non-meditators.
“Even though it is early to talk about conclusive evidence of robust effects of meditation on the physiology of the stress response, this study, among others, demonstrates that contemplative practice might indeed be related to the way our body deals with threats,” Liudmila Gamaiunova, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Lausanne and one of the study’s authors, told PsyPost.
What is it about meditation that changes a person’s physiological stress response?
The meditators also experienced less shame and higher self-esteem following a socially stressful situation, and they also had a few solid cognitive emotion regulation strategies mastered. They were better at looking back at the experience and figuring out a positive way to view what happened, and they were less likely to catastrophize—i.e. getting irrationally worked up and making a bigger deal out of a situation than it needs to be. But the most important skill they had?
The findings showed the relationship between a long-held meditation practice and a faster stress response was mediated by the ability to use acceptance as an emotional regulation strategy. In other words, people who were better at accepting what’s happened tended to have a faster stress recovery, and meditators were all-around better with the skill of acceptance.
That suggests acceptance, a skill often honed through a steady meditation practice, might be triggering a psychophysiological response to stress: Because a meditator's mind has practiced the art of acceptance so thoroughly, the brain is able to respond to the emotional strategy by calming its stress center more quickly.
Acceptance is a key emotional skill for dealing with stress.
Gamaiunova describes acceptance as “non-judgment and receptivity towards our experiences.” It’s the ability to not judge ourselves, our actions, or even our experiences and to instead view the situation (and yourself) with compassion. It’s about letting go of the negative feelings associated with an experience and deciding to move forward wholeheartedly.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Kristina Hallett tells mbg that taking a few breaths, centering the present moment, and practicing an attitude of kindness can help us reach this place of self-acceptance—and conveniently, meditation just happens to be one of the best ways to do all three of those things.
“When we're focused on what we've done ‘wrong,’ we're facing the past (which we can't affect anymore today). When we're focused on what ‘might’ happen, we are facing the future (which we can't affect because it hasn't happened yet),” Dr. Hallett explains. “Instead, I'd invite you to stay in the present. Work on catching yourself when you find yourself sucked into a spiral of self-denigration or worry. As we stay in the present, we can learn from the situation.”
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